The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is spraying city neighborhoods against mosquitoes that may carry and spread the Zika virus,1 2 3 which officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have concluded is the cause of the infant birth defect microcephaly.4 New York City public health officials are now using low-flying helicopters to release pellets of the pesticides Altosid and VectoBac over four of New York City’s five boroughs, including Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx.1 3
Specific areas targeted for spraying are “marshland and other urban wetlands.” In Brooklyn, these include Marine Park and Fresh Creek Park. In Queens, it is Alley Pond Park, the now dormant Flushing Airport, Dubos Point Wildlife Sanctuary and Park, and Brookville Park. In Staten Island, areas include Goethals North, Corporate Park, Saw Mill Marsh, Chelsea, Fresh Kills, La Tourette, Port Mobile, Wolfes Pond Park, Blue Heron Park, South Beach, Old Town, Clove Lake Park, and Kissena Park. In The Bronx, it’s Pelham Bay Park.1 3
Altosid is a trade name for the insect growth regulator (IGR) Methoprene. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Methoprene “interferes with an insect’s life cycle and prevents it from reaching maturity or reproducing.”5 It essentially attacks mosquitoes when they are in their larval stage of development in water, before they hatch and are able to fly. Other trade names for the larvicide are Apex, Diacon, Dianex, Extinguish, Fleatrol, Kabat, Ovitrol, Pharorid, and Precor.5
With regard to Altosid’s toxicity to humans, fact sheets made available by local governments state:
Risk to the general public from the use of Altosid is minimal. Avoiding exposure is always the safest course of action, particularly for populations that may be at higher risk such as pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.6 7
VectoBac is a trade name for the bacterial insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). Other trade names include Aquabac, Teknar, and LarvX, but there are a total of 25 Bti products registered for use in the United States.8 According to the EPA:
Mosquito larvae eat the Bti product which is made up of the dormant spore form of the bacterium and an associated pure toxin. The toxin disrupts the gut in the mosquito by binding to receptor cells present in insects, but not in mammals.8
According to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), “Bti is low in toxicity to people and other mammals.” With regard to birds and fish, Bti has been found to be “practically non-toxic and non-pathogenic.”9
Although both insect growth regulators and bacterial insecticides are thought to be relatively harmless to humans, they are still toxic to some degree. Note above, for example, the risk of Altosid to the public is described as minimal, and the toxicity of Bti is characterized as low.
What might be of particular concern to the New York City’s residents is the ironic possibility that using these chemicals against mosquitoes to control the perceived threat of the Zika virus could actually have the effect of creating a serious local health crisis where there was previously none.
While the CDC seems convinced that Zika is behind the microcephaly cases in Brazil that have received so much media exposure of late, other organizations such as Médicos de Pueblos Fumigados (Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages) of Argentina do not believe the causal relationship between Zika and the Brazilian microcephaly cases is clear. The Vaccine Reaction published an article about this titled “Pyriproxyfen Suspected of Causing Microcephaly in Brazil” earlier this year.10
Médicos de Pueblos Fumigados has argued that an insect growth regulator similar to Altosid may be responsible for the microcephaly cases. In a report published in February 2016, the group cited Pyriproxyfen as a possible cause.11 According to the report:
[I]n the area [of Brazil] where most sick persons live, a chemical larvicide producing malformations in mosquitoes has been applied for 18 months, and that […] poison (Pyriproxyfen) is applied by the State on drinking water used by the affected population.
Malformations detected in thousands of children from pregnant women living in areas where the Brazilian state added Pyriproxyfen to drinking water is not a coincidence…11
This plausible theory that human exposures to toxic pesticides can damage fetal brains should be sufficient reason to give every New Yorker pause. It should be a reason to give those operating the New York City Health Department pause. Only time will tell if, in fact, the current anti-Zika pesticide spraying campaign will produce the outbreak of microcephaly cases it is aimed at preventing.
1 Ford J. These NYC areas will be sprayed with Zika-preventing larvicides. PIX11 News May 13, 2016.
2 Frost M. NYC begins fight against the Zika virus. Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 17, 2016.
3 Katz M. These NYC Areas Will Be Doused In Zika-Preventing Larvicides This Week. Gothamist May 11, 2016.
4 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Concludes Zika Causes Microcephaly and Other Birth Defects. CDC.gov Apr. 13, 2016.
5 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. June 2001 Update of the March 1991 Methoprene R.E.D. Fact Sheet. EPA.gov June 2001.
6 Passaic County Mosquito Control Pesticide Fact Sheet. Borough of Ringwood, New Jersey.
7 Altosid. Department of Public Works, Essex County, New Jersey.
8 Larvicides for Mosquito Control. Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project.
9 Bacillus thuringiensis General Fact Sheet. National Pesticide Information Center.
10 Cáceres M. Pyriproxyfen Suspected of Causing Microcephaly in Brazil. The Vaccine Reaction Feb. 12, 2016.
11 Avila Vazquez M and Team REDUAS. REPORT from Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages regarding Dengue-Zika, microcephaly, and mass-spraying with chemical poisons. Red Universitaria de Ambiente y Salud Feb. 3, 2016.